When email communication began in 1971, it was nothing more than a way to quickly share simple text messages between people. Fast forward to today, emails have become the primary communication channel for marketing. Research shows that roughly 69% of marketers use it as a content distribution platform rather than a simple messaging system.
This shift has been driven by the recognition that email design can have a huge impact on campaign success. With 376.4 billion emails expected to be sent daily by 2025, the competition for a recipient's attention is intense. People are constantly bombarded with emails, so any email with a poorly designed layout and unclear message will be quickly deleted.
To ensure yours are not, we’ll guide you through everything you need to know about creating effective email designs that will leave a lasting impression on your recipients.
What Is Email Design?
Simply put, email design is the process of arranging and formatting text and images in a way that's appealing to recipients and encourages them to take a desired action. Traditionally, there are three types of email designs you can use.
1. Plain Text
As the most basic type of email design, plain text emails are limited and don't include any images or HTML. This type of design is often used for one-to-one communication and can be a great way to create a more personal, conversational atmosphere.
In marketing, plain text is often underestimated because many business owners believe they must stand out visually. But if there's one type of email that doesn't directly scream "marketing," it's the plain text email. Often, people don't even realize that the email is also going out to thousands of others, making them more focused on the content and not visually distracted.
2. Rich HTML
Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is a coding language used to create website elements. When used for email design, HTML allows marketers to add visuals, videos, and other interactive features that can be customized using CSS. Don't worry; the best email marketing software today all offers drag-and-drop email builders, so you don't have to touch any code.
This type of design can be more visually appealing than plain text designs and helps to create a professional look. You can still keep your emails simple and just use a colored button to stand out or customize your entire email from top to bottom. In particular, discount promotions and recurring email schemes are popularly used for attention-grabbing and branded designs.
More recently, interactive email designs have gained popularity. It is an extension of HTML email. This type of design uses elements such as surveys, carousels, and polls to create a more engaging experience for recipients.
Benefits of Good Email Design
We won't sugar-coat it: crafting an effective email design takes time and effort. It can be a tedious process that may not always yield the desired results. But if done correctly, it can be incredibly beneficial.
Showcases Brand Identity
Companies can showcase their brand identity through the use of visuals and consistent styles. Creating a recognizable image in your recipient's inbox will ensure you remain top of mind and help build customer loyalty. They'll be more likely to recognize and read your emails if you deliver good content consistently.
Increases Engagement and Conversions
A well-crafted email design will encourage recipients to engage with your content, ultimately increasing conversions. With the right visuals and CTAs, you can create emails that are appealing and easy to act upon. For instance, a study found that sending up to three abandoned cart emails can increase conversions of ecommerce stores by up to 69%. Pair this with a great design, and it could be the first one of three that already converts most users.
Finally, your emails don't always have to be about product promotions or sales. You can use them to provide value in other ways, such as by sharing helpful advice or tips about a certain topic. Establish yourself as a thought leader in your industry and add value to your recipients by creating useful content with appropriate storytelling and a matching design.
While your content determines whether your email is truly valuable, subjectively, it is often the corresponding design that pushes this value. In the case of a longer storytelling email, this could be avoiding HTML elements and instead focusing on simple text formatting with a balanced use of paragraphs.
What to Consider for Your Email Design
Most email marketing campaigns today use rich HTML design for an engaging layout. As such, we'll focus on this type of design to discuss the elements you should include in your emails.
Remember, HTML is also used to create website elements, which helps draw parallels between the two. The goal is to create an attractive, cohesive design that highlights your message and encourages engagement.
The first point we’ll start with may surprise you a little because, at first glance, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the design of an email, but pay attention.
Subject Line and Pre-Header
An effective subject line and pre-header are so extremely important that we have to take them into account when designing emails. After all, even the best design is useless if an email is not opened in the first place.
That’s because your email subscribers will read your subject line and pre-header before they decide to open an email. If these two are bad, you will lose far more readers than you can make up for with an excellent design.
You can think of the subject line as a headline; make it clear and concise. Your readers should immediately understand what's inside and be motivated to take action. Avoid using clickbait, as it will lead to unsubscribes or users marking your emails as spam.
The pre-header is also visible outside the email, so you should use this space wisely to supplement and expand on the subject line. It can pick up on the headline or be used to preview what's inside the email to further motivate subscribers to open your message. If you don’t customize it, usually the first few lines of your email are used by default as your pre-header. Keep an eye on it because this can turn out to be awkward if your pre-header text turns out to be “read in browser” or any other default text visible in your emails.
Header vs. No Header
Once opened, the first thing your readers will see is the header. Depending on the purpose of your email, it can either be a branded header to easily identify your company or you just don’t use a header at all.
Amazon Header With Menu
You can also add a menu bar of navigational links to help readers reach the most important pages related to your website or specific email content. This is especially helpful if your emails are lengthy or contain multiple topics. The header is also where many companies offer the choice to read emails in a browser instead of their inbox. A simple link with the text "view in browser" should be enough.
Use a header with your logo when sharing official updates, discounts, or emails with multiple contents (e.g. an overview of the latest blog posts). You can skip displaying a header if you want to focus more on the content of your email and make it more personal.
A headline is optional but can be a great way to reinforce the purpose of your subject line, ideally using different wording. Overall, try not to overwhelm your readers before they get to the main content.
An email isn't a blog post or essay; it's a snapshot of information, unless you purely use it for storytelling. What you place below your header is critical. It should be easy to scan and digest, containing plenty of white space. Items should be organized to allow readers to get the essence of your message.
The most popular layouts to achieve this effect include the following.
The inverted pyramid layout aims to gradually narrow down the focus of your message. It begins with a broad header that spans the entire width of the email, then narrows to two-column content before finishing with a single CTA button at the bottom.
Ideal for product-focused emails, this layout begins with a wide header but follows an F-like shape with content listed vertically down the left side. It is designed to complement the natural reading flow.
Maximize the space and allow readers to scan down the email. Use this layout when presenting multiple CTA buttons with different design elements.
Finally, simpler emails may benefit from a single-column design. This layout is great for announcements and personal content, making the text stand out more than multiple columns. This is the natural layout of a plain text email.
When it comes to branding, remember to use your company's colors throughout the design if you don’t go with plain text. This will give your emails a professional look and further solidify your brand identity in readers' minds. You can utilize these colors in the header and footer sections, as well as within images or for your hyperlinks and buttons.
Imagery is a tricky element to master in email design. On the one hand, it can be a great way to attract attention and break up chunks of text. However, too many images can make your emails look overwhelming and unprofessional.
When using images in your email design, ensure they're relevant to your message and complement any text around them. Use the most appropriate file formats (JPG, PNG, or GIF). Videos are becoming more popular in emails but aren't supported by all inboxes.
A hero image (a big image at the top of your email) is a great way to draw readers in and establish the purpose of your email at first glance. This can be an image of a product, an illustration of your services, or anything else you want to promote. Since it’s at the top, ensure it's well-optimized.
Happy Socks Black Friday Hero Image
Don't forget to include alt text. It ensures the reader sees what image would be visible if images aren't displayed in the inbox.
In most cases, getting subscribers to read your email is only one part of the battle. Over time, you need to ensure your readers do something, like clicking a link or buying a product. A well-visible call-to-action (CTA) button in your email design is a good idea to enforce this.
CTAs should stand out in the layout, so readers know where to go next. Use a contrasting color to draw attention to your buttons, and play around with your CTA buttons' shape, size, and position according to your brand identity. Keep your CTA text short and actionable, such as "Learn More" or "Buy Now."
The body of your email is crucial. It's what every other element strives to support. Bear in mind that, like a striking subject line, all the design elements discussed above are useless if your content isn't relevant or interesting to your subscribers.
Make sure that each email is tailored towards a single message, and think about how every sentence contributes to this purpose. Avoid using too many words, as readers tend to skim emails. Instead, try bullet points or lists, and keep paragraphs short.
Next in our email design guide is typography. It may be tempting to use fancy fonts, but be aware that not all email clients support them. That's why it's best to stick with common, email-safe fonts, like:
- Courier New
- Lucida Sans Unicode
- Times New Roman
- Trebuchet MS
Just like a website, your emails should have a footer section that matches your style. It should contain all the necessary details required by your law, like contact information, legal disclaimers, links to social media profiles, and an unsubscribe button.
NBA Email Footer
The unsubscribe link is always required to respect your readers' privacy and adhere to email regulations. The footer is also where companies with apps have the opportunity to encourage downloads. You may also include support links, such as a link to your FAQ or customer support page.
With these basic design guidelines in mind, here are some pro tips to help you make the most of your emails.
Find Your Balance
As one of the more limited forms of design, email design requires finding the right balance between elements. Visuals and text should be complementary and support each other. Choose the right visuals for your message, but don't overuse them. Likewise, CTAs should be placed strategically so they don't interfere with the content or other CTAs.
Personalization is key when it comes to emails. You can personalize almost any element, from the subject line and hero image to text blocks and CTAs. Incorporate your subscribers' data into emails to make them feel special, increase engagement, and drive conversions.
The most obvious way is to use the subscriber's name. If you don't have it, you can use segmentation. It’s used to group your subscribers based on interests, location, or other criteria to send them more relevant content.
Use the data from subscribers wherever you can, even if it's "only" the websites they visited. The best marketing automation tools let you track everything. For example, if you have a travel agency and a subscriber looks at a Thailand trip on your website, you can automatically send them an email ad with only Thailand trips.
Make Use of Contrast
The best way to make your emails stand out and draw attention is by using contrasting colors. Choose a primary color for all design elements, then pick accent shades to highlight important sections.
Keep in mind that color theory isn't just about aesthetics; it can also influence how readers perceive content. For example, green often signifies that something is "safe," while red suggests urgency. Yellow implies happiness, while blue is often preferred for a professional look and emphasizes trust.
Optimize for Mobile
Not all your subscribers read emails on their computers. 81% of people prefer to open their emails on a mobile device. That's why it's important to make your emails look good on any screen size. Design responsive emails that resize automatically depending on the device used. All elements, from images and CTA buttons to font sizes and padding, should be optimized for desktop and mobile devices.
Avoid the Spam Filter
Another tip to remember is to get your emails delivered. Email providers have strict regulations and security measures, so they may end up sending your emails straight to the spam folder if you're not careful. We've written a separate article about email deliverability, make sure to read it for more detailed information on this subject.
Test Your Designs
Even if you have an eye for design and know all the ins and outs, it's unlikely that every email will be perfect on the first attempt. That's why testing is so important. Manually test different designs and layouts to see how they look on multiple devices and try to spot any formatting flaws. Using your email marketing software’s feature for A/B split tests can further help you optimize the performance by determining which CTAs, subject lines, etc. get more clicks or if one design outperforms another regarding open rates, click-throughs, or conversions.
Create Templates for Consistency
People love things they already know. Therefore, your emails shouldn’t always look completely different in terms of their layout. Create a template for each type of email you intend to send. It saves you time and ensures that your formatting stays the same so that no mistakes get mixed in.
Of course, you can use different layouts for different purposes, but you should stick to the same layouts for emails with a similar purpose.
Let’s say I send my subscribers an email every week that features my new blog article. I choose plain text that briefly describes what the article is about and what relevance it has to the reader.
Once a month, I also send a collection of the most successful articles written by the whole team. For this one, I used an HTML email.
And lastly, I also send out product updates and announcements every now and then.
Now, to avoid recreating the header, footer, buttons, etc. every single time I want to send one of these different email types, I can create a template for each of them and simply fill it out each time I want to send one of them.
Leverage Your Email Marketing Software
Similar to your content, everything we have talked about in this article is almost worthless without the right email marketing software. This is not just about design options and pre-built templates. It's more about the whole package of features that should match your requirements so that you can get the maximum results out of your email campaigns.
There are countless businesses that either pay too much or can't do everything they need to with their current software. To make sure you do not belong to this group, head over to our Best Picks featuring the best email marketing software if you’re eager to use a tool that is well-balanced for your marketing efforts.
Designing emails correctly is a great way to properly engage your audience. It takes skill, attention to detail, and creativity to create visually appealing emails that get your message across effectively. Creativity can mean simplicity or abstraction. Try to match your intention with your design layout, and keep testing different ways that fit your brand. Remember the tips we discussed in this email design guide, and you'll be on your way to successful email marketing.
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